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Greeks, Lesbians and Vlachs – why my fascination with Greece?

Tom Winnifrith
Saturday 16 June 2012

I am asked why am I so fascinated with Greece? In part it is a romantic thing – the idea of brave Hellas reasserting its independence and history – see my great hero pictured here. But it is more a family thing. My father’s family have been Helleno-nuts for 200 years. I shall touch on Lesbians, in that vein, below.

My paternal grandfather was the first in his family to go to university (Oxford natch) and he studied classics. But on my paternal grandmother’s side all branches (Bradleys, Cochranes, Crawfords, Ilberts) were classicists and mostly Oxford educated. The Bradleys produced a number of well known scholars whose works I have never read. My great grandfather (Sir Arthur Cochrane) was a herald by profession but a classicist by training and Greek obsessed. His eldest son, David, died falling down the mountain opposite Delphi. I have his gold watch. He died in the country he loved.

His sister, my grandmother, was christened Lesbia. Back in 1910 that name did not immediately conjure up images of KD Lang, Joan Jett or Katy Perry videos as it would today. Indeed it would not even have brought up thoughts of Virginia Woolf. It would have just been accepted that she was named after a Greek island (Lesbos) and that is it. My grandmother, though razor sharp, did not go to university but she had a keen love and knowledge of Greece. Visiting the country with my grandfather looking at War Graves (he was head of the War Graves Commission after retiring) it was she who encountered (I know not how or why) Mike whose surname I cannot remember but is always known as Mike the Vlach.

And it was granny who discussed this with my father and aroused his interest in the Vlachs. Google search on “Tom Winnifrith Vlachs” will produce numerous learned works by him, not me. But over the years I have with him visited my fair share of Vlach villages in Greece and Macedonia. The Vlachs are a formerly nomadic people living in Northern Greece, Southern Yugoslavia and Albania. Hence for 35 years my father has been travelling to those places (including Albania during the ultra hard line Marxist period when few Westerners were allowed in).

These days few Vlachs are nomadic and their own language is dying out as kids grow up watching Greek/Macedonian or Albanian TV and leave home to go to the big cities for work. Er... that may be stopping now. When, aged 9, I first went to Anelion where Mike the Vlach lives it was a tortuous 5 hour bus journey from Ioannina along windy and bumpy Mountain roads. My sister Tabitha was always sick all over the bus. And then at the end of that trip it was a one hour walk along a donkey track from Metsovo. Local wine was a penny a glass, there was one black and white TV in the village, and everyone was poor but _ think – happy. Nearly everyone in the village spoke Vlach. The Church and the tavernas dominated village life and I learned backgammon there.

These days you can drive to Anelion (thanks to EU dosh) and everyone has satellite TV. Most folks drink beer or spirits and there are fewer tavernas. Most folks speak Greek. Most of the younger folk have gone. Vlach is dying out. I can count to ten in Vlach and know a few words. The Vlach for man is barba (Latin for beard) and the sprinkling of Latin derived words in the language fuelled myths that the vlachs were descended from a lost legion. Who knows? It is just one of many small dying European languages – like the one spoken by a few villages in the Peloponnese which is derived from Spartan Greek as opposed to Athenian Greek.

For me the dream holiday involves calling up my friend Tim Smart at "Houses of Pelion ( 2017 Edit, sadly Tim's business was effectively shut by bogus online harassment from some ghastly British customer). I recommend anyone going to Greece uses Tim’s services and he fixes up everything. Whether it is a house by the sea in Pelion or hotels allowing me to trek around the Peloponnese (reading poetry by Heaney inspired by the area as you go) or up to the monasteries at Meteora or even to visit Mike, Tim arranges everything. A hotel in Delphi allowing me to race daughter Olaf around the old running track, just ask Tim. He can do anything. I still have parts of Greece I wish to explore.

The islands hold minimal appeal but the area near the Turkish border is unvisited and Joanna Lumley has inspired me to follow Byron’s journeys up near the Albanian border. But I would happily sit for an eternity in a village somewhere in Pelion or Arcadia a few miles from the sea enjoying the weather, occasional trips to the water tapping away on a laptop and soaking in the sunshine, a slower pace of life and slowly improving my, almost non-existent, Greek. It saddens me beyond words to see Greece humiliated and bankrupted as it is today. It is partly self inflicted. Its leaders are corrupt and it has lived beyond its means.

But it was seduced by EU grants and by the folly of others in bodging it into the Euro without thinking it through. I understand how the fear of Turkey led Greece to cling onto the EU but in doing so it faces surrendering an independence hard won. The social dislocation of the current chaos is awful to behold. De-urbanisation, emigration, riots, the breakdown of trust in fiat currencies, unemployment, real poverty without the dignity of the old rural existence are all results of where Greece finds itself. Notwithstanding that my father always jokes that he will spend his last years on Mount Athos (a women free peninsula). That, I think, is a joke. But he may have half a mind to spend those years in Greece. It is in his blood. Mine too.

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About Tom Winnifrith
Tom Winnifrith is the editor of When he is not harvesting olives in Greece, he is (planning to) raise goats in Wales.
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